Ayler lives! in the East River

Visionary saxophonist Albert Ayler liked to stare at the sun, which may have led to his drowning at age 34 in 1970. An upstart 7-hour outdoor festival celebrates the heedlessly ecstatic spirit of his music tomorrow, July 10, at Riverwalk Commons of Roosevelt Island, in the very waters where the man-beyond-jazz breathed his last.

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Ayler was a unique voice at the dawn of free improvisation, known for the sheer hugeness of his tenor sax sound, his unbridled scream and raucous honk, ultra-dramatic vibrato, shattering sing-song melodies and intensely non-linear improvisations — all characteristics the out-est cats of hard-core musical genres revere to this day. Headliners at the first Albert Ayler Festival (sponsored three days short of what would have been his 74th birthday by ESP-Disk, label of his unparalelled mid-’60s recordings, and Brooklyn’s Issue Project Room) include several of the most marginalized yet also cutting-edge reeds players in America. 

The 5 p.m. solo set by Ned Rothenberg (a devotee of the rare Japanese shakuhachi as well as distinctive perfectionist on alto sax) and the climactic 7 p.m. performance of the New Atlantis Sextet featuring Sun Ra‘s squealin’ and screechin’ Marshall Allen (hope he uses his electric wind instrument) look like highlights. But my pal poet of the downtown vernacular Steve Dalachinsky gives an invocation at 2 p.m., followed by the quartet of Guiseppi Logan, a contemporary of Ayler’s who has recently returned to playing after decades lost to drugs, homelessness and institutionalization. 
From 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., balladeering tenorist Andrew Lamb, veteran multi-instrumentalist Gunter Hampel and piercing altoist Daniel Carter solo in succession — then Flow Trio with tenorist Louie Belogenis, and (after Rothenberg), reedist Sabir Mateen in duo with space-age drummer William Hooker. Closing festivities run by DJ Spun.
This is not a lineup you’ll hear at jazz fests in Litchfield, Newport or Tanglewood — it is simply too unremitting. Excepting Rothenberg, who has developed serious advances in sax potentials using circular breathing, multi-phonics, “false” fingerings and other rigorous techniques, these players are mostly about spontaneous self-expression, with little interest in ingratiating themselves to listeners expecting soothing backdrops to a summer’s afternoon. Go for the sonic equivalent of a trial by fire — subject yourself to scathing dissonance, timbral extremes, heart-beat rhythms — and come out with a renewed sense of the sheer scale of sounds musicians combating societal conventions bring to their critiques.
“Music is the healing force of the universe,” Ayler used to say (You can hear his raps and dig his sincerity in the excellent documentary film My Name Is Albert Ayler, which I reported on two years ago for NPR). Our universe, ill as it is, demands strong medicine. Ayler knew that in his guts, and his followers feel it, too. Most unusual for them to convene in one spot at one time, and so to roar. You may not even have to take the F train under the East River to hear them. These saxes might shake up strollers on the Bobby Wagner Walk by the FDR Drive.

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